in: Reviews

August 9, 2017

The Force With Eric Lu

by

Eric Lu’s explosive performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7, capping his uneven recital for the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts summer festival, reached a high point in a series filled with many such. Clean, pointed, propulsive, possibly even shaped with a feel for its wartorn 1943 origin, it showed off this 19-year-old native Bostonian and current Curtis student at his best.

Unfortunately, a great many moments in the repertory preceding—Mozart, Brahms, Handel, Chopin—inappropriately exhibited the racket of the Prokofiev. Inasmuch as Lu’s technique permits just about anything to happen at the keyboard, it may be safe to assume that his frequent near-banging constituted a deliberate choice, not only about musical style in the moment but also about forcefulness and current artistic identity. We heard little of the lovely consistency that obtained in his Walnut Hill Chopin Preludes from one year ago (the subsequent competition performance is here; do not quit before the last minute or two, ending with Lu’s strike of the final D at the “floor of hell”, as Andre Gide explained).

On Sunday night, Mozart’s Rondo K.511, with that composer presaging Chopin both expressively and harmonically, began unsettled, and lacked sway until it eventually became Beethovenian in its dramas, with Lu conveying darkness to the perfect arpeggios before the quiet close. The Chopin Barcarolle began in elegance yet turned unpolished soon enough, some moments almost coarse, phrasing not fully coherent. Lu did not resemble the pianist who produced the controlled, deep affection of this outstanding rendition.

Brahms’s Opus 118 also varied: No. 1 was rough, 2 obvious even with playing of notable evenness and beauty; 3, the big Ballade, did rock to its tremendous ending, while 4 was neither here nor there. No. 5 succeeded, with small problems of hand ensemble, but fully poised. Lu could not get the full measure of so black a piece as No. 6, which is unsurprising, and eventually he introduced needlessly spiky tone in the rousing central part, although the bleak return ended movingly.

One reason Lu’s inconsistency stands out more than it might with another pianist is that he’s such a pleasure to watch. Tall, graceful of bearing, ever so slightly stooped, with long supernimble fingers, he emotes and moves charmingly without overdoing it.

After intermission I anticipated that things might level out, to an extent. But Handel’s Chaconne, which can be quite a showpiece, with the potential for real majesty, sounded driven by a variable-speed motor, that is, overinflected; this might have been rhythmically almost okay but for the blunt phrasing. Louder than needed when loud, it seemed to get a sort of Busoni treatment. Lu took all of the echoed passagework fleetly. Chopin’s Opus 33 Mazurkas suffered from a certain stiffness almost throughout. No. 1 also became clangy. Nos. 3 and 4 ended excellently, the latter’s length winding to the rather gotcha ending.

Eric Lu (file photo)

And then that powerfully insistent Prokofiev. Lu relishes it, I’d say, and all of it: the unquiet opening, the warm Andante, the precipitous finale, which he took neither too fast nor too slow but just right.

The pianist’s encores, Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze in transcription and the first movement of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2, had been offered only days before by two other pianists in the festival. Lu’s choices may therefore have been intended to show what he had to add or correct—or they may simply have been competitive, to take shots at peers. If the latter, his rounds missed, falling quite short of the elegance and poise of Larry Weng and Artur Haftman. Some of Lu’s clanging in Sheep did ring out prettily, impressively, but other phrasing and ensemble were unlovely. The Chopin’s heavily accented passages rather galumphed about the singing part.

It should be interesting to see how this intriguing young performer evens out.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.

4 Comments

  1. Re: “Lu’s choices may therefore have been intended to show what he had to add or correct—or they may simply have been competitive, to take shots at peers. If the latter, his rounds missed, falling quite short of the elegance and poise of Larry Weng and Artur Haftman.”

    Writing something like this is just so mean and cruel, and simply is an insulting too. The truth is none of these narratives as you thought. It is just as simple as he loves the pieces and wanted to have a chance to share those with the loving audiences. He didn’t even know what the other pianists had played since he didn’t attend the recitals, and even if he did, no musicians would have wanted to perform in a recital just because they wanted to compete with their fellow pianists. If you know someone who would do this, it is just unfortunate for you.

    As a mother who witnessed the growing and developing of a young musician as Eric, who had put hours and hours crafting his works to the best, reading something like this just made me heartbroken. So my advice would be that if you are a music critic, and you don’t like what you hear, you can say it, but please say it gracefully.

    Comment by Wendy — August 10, 2017 at 5:08 pm

  2. >> he loves the pieces and wanted to have a chance to share those with the loving audiences.

    The sincere protests of the pianist’s mother ought not to be gainsaid. But there are many suitable Bach chorale transcriptions, and choosing to repeat the very one played as an encore early in the festival, in the first recital featuring young local musicians, certainly seemed pointed. Following up that by doing the same with the nine-minute opening movement of a large famous sonata which had been played just days before — a kind of encore I’ve never heard offered before — seemed even more pointed. It’s not as though these three young artists share the same teacher.

    Nevertheless, it’s good to hear that your son’s motives were love and sharing and nothing ulterior. Rising pianism is such a competitive world.

    Comment by david moran — August 10, 2017 at 11:14 pm

  3. First of all, for the “unheard of” you had, let me give you an example from András Schiff’s concert at Jordan Hall in November 3, 2013 that I personally went and listened. Here is what Boston Global wrote, “What followed was extraordinary. One could hardly have expected an encore after 130 minutes of music, but Schiff, without announcement, launched into the 17-minute final movement of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Opus 111.” (https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/music/2013/11/03/music-review-andras-schiff-uncompromising-bach-and-beethoven/giXv5fBcDvUl2z5Z6aTTKI/story.html).

    Secondly, Eric’s rendition of the 1st movement of the sonata was 6 minutes and 30 seconds, not 9 minutes.

    Lastly, to say something based on the assumption is arrogant no matter how “pointed” your assumption base was, and to use the power to write and publish it is immoral.

    Comment by Wendy — August 11, 2017 at 11:22 am

  4. Is Wendy actually Eric’s own mother, or a friend of Eric’s who’s a mother? No matter. Gotta love mom power, dishing it out to the disher. Next time, do what H v Bulow did and challenge the critic to a duel.

    Comment by rlhevinne — August 12, 2017 at 4:12 pm

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